Big Ten: The Cradle of Coaching Talent

Believe it or not the College Football Season begins this Friday night with a game in Australia of all places as California meets Hawaii.  It’s a 10 p.m. start on ESPN for those of you fellow junkies although I still will always believe that Friday Nights should be reserved for High Schools, but in this ESPN world, things don’t stay the same.

The Big Ten season starts next week.  Everyone knows that College Football – unlike the pro game – is about the coaches.  The Players are the stars in the NFL, but there’s no question that the coaches are the stars in College.  With that said, there are very few conferences that can boast the star coaching talent of the Big Ten.  Ohio State’s Urban Meyer has three national titles, 2 at Florida and 1 at Ohio State.  He’s likely going to be in the running for another one this season and for years to come because the guy knows how to recruit, has one of the most fertile recruiting grounds to choose from in Ohio, and let’s be honest, just knows how to coach.  You don’t win three National Titles by accident.

He’s going to face a serious challenge in future years from Ohio State’s biggest rival in Michigan.  Jim Harbaugh is a bit of nut job, but if you don’t think he knows how to coach look at what he did with the train wreck left by Brady Hoke at Michigan. He took that same team to a New Year’s Day Bowl Game.  He’s going to match Meyer recruit for recruit, and continue to push the envelope on doing things “outside of the box” not to mention continue to troll his fellow coaches on Twitter.  Steve Spurrier was a master at tweaking his opponents just enough to get their focus off the task at hand and on Spurrier instead.  It works and Harbaugh is working it masterfully.  We may just be seeing Woody and Bo all over again in the form of Meyer and Harbaugh and the winner in that scenario is college football.

Harbaugh is one of two Big Ten Coaches to coach a team in the Super Bowl, joining new Illinois coach Lovie Smith in that category.  Smith was let go by Tampa Bay in the NFL for some reason and didn’t get the job at Illinois until March.  His late start may not show immediate returns this season, but it’s not like Illinois has never been good at football and they’ll probably be good again.  They are a bit handicapped by the fact that there’s comparatively very little good High School Football talent in the State of Illinois.  It’s a large state with the third largest city in the country in Chicago.  But, a large majority of Illinois outside of Chicago is rural and in many places there are as former West Virginia coach Don Nehlen once said about West Virginia more trees with birds than football players.  Although in Illinois, farmland with corn is probably a better analogy.

There are coaches trying to revive traditional powers that have fallen on hard times at Penn State and Nebraska.  I’m less convinced however that James Franklin is going to as successful at Penn State as Mike Riley will be at Nebraska.  Riley may have seen like a odd hire for Nebraska, but not really when you consider that he tapped into two talent rich states in California and Texas for players to fill his roster at Oregon State.  He has to do the same thing at Nebraska because again, while Nebraska loves football, they don’t have many great High School players to choose from.

The Big Ten – with Va. Tech coach Frank Beamer’s retirement – is now the home of the longest tenured coach at a single school in Kurt Ferentz at Iowa.  I always though the guy was a bit overrated and overpaid for what Iowa got from him.  Some years, like last year’s Rose Bowl team, Iowa is good and some years they are just average.  But, this is Iowa and as they say in Illinois Iowa stands for I-Idiots, O-Out, W-Wandering, A-About, and can Iowa really do any better than Ferentz?  Probably not, and so they’ll have to take the occasional mediocre to get the occasional New Year’s Day Bowl Game.

There are newcomers to the job this season at Maryland and Rutgers as two former Big Ten Defensive Coordinators in Chris Ash (Ohio State) takes over at Rutgers trying to clean up the Klye Flood mess he left behind, and D. J. Durkin (Michigan) at Maryland.  Then there is the simply understated Mark Dantonio at Michigan State.  Last year when all the talk was about Ohio State defending its National Title, all Dantonio did was focus on the task at hand, beat Ohio State on the road and win the Big Ten title over Iowa with a 20 some play drive at the end of the game that would make football purists smile.

There are two coaches clearly fighting for their lives this year, both within the state of Indiana.  Kevin Wilson’s Indiana team has scored points in bunches, but has at times been defensively challenged.  You kind of have to wonder though what Indiana really wants in a college football program.   Nothing is as a big in Indiana as basketball and nothing ever will be as big as basketball.  But, the constant revolving door of coaches isn’t helping matters any.  And, Purdue’s Darrel Hazel is basically dead man walking.  If he survives the season I’ll be surprised.  Purdue is actually a program that has been good and very good.  Remember former coach Joe Tiller took Purdue to the Rose Bowl (which in the Big Ten is still the biggest thing) and Purdue has turned out an NFL Hall of Fame Quarterback in Bob Griese and a future one in Drew Brees.

With all that coaching talent, I’d like to focus on two others.  One who is woven into the fabric of his university and the other a long time loyal soldier getting a chance.

When you consider the academic requirements and the challenges of the Big Ten, there may not be a better coach in the Big Ten than Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald.  Northwestern is a gorgeous campus right on the banks of Lake Michigan in Evanston, Illinois about a one-hour train ride from Chicago.  Evanston is the quentisentional college town.  If you get a chance to go, do it.  You’ll love it.  Quiet and lined with trees, the old homes give Evanston a certain charm.  And crammed right into a neighborhood is Northwestern’s Ryan Field.  It’s not a new stadium. and it’s not going to be confused with Michigan Stadium or Ohio Stadium, but I cannot imagine a better place to see a game on a cool fall Saturday.

Fitzgerald is a product of the school.  As a two-time All-American Linebacker at Northwestern in the mid 90s, he was the captain of the 1996 co-Big Ten Champions and a part of the 1995 Big Ten Championship team that played USC in the Rose Bowl.  After a couple of stops as an assistant, Fitzgerald returned home to Northwestern to be on the staff of head coach Randy Walker who came to Northwestern from Miami of Ohio.  When Walker died suddenly, Fitzgerald was promoted to head coach in 2006 without ever having served as coordinator.  Now entering his 11th season, his overall record is 70 -56, making him the winningest coach in Northwestern History.  He has 6 bowl wins, and two ten win seasons, last year’s 10 – 3, and 10 -3 in 2012.

Northwestern has never been confused with a traditional football power, but the school has a rich history.  Among the men to coach at the school were Ara Parseghian who went on to coach Notre Dame, Dennis Green who went on to coach in the NFL, and Gary Barnett who left Northwestern to coach at Colorado.  Among their alums is former CBS NFL Today analyst Irv Cross, and NFL Hall of Famer Otto Graham who passed for over 23,000 yards and 174 touchdowns while leading the Cleveland Browns to 4 straight AFL Titles.

I’ve found it confusing that an athletic director looking for a coach has never pursued Fitzgerald or maybe one has and Fitzgerald is happy at Evanston.  I can certainly see why and if you win 10 games in a nice place to raise your family, why do something else?

While Fitzgerald has established himself as one of the best in the Big Ten, a lifer assistant is finally getting his chance to run his own program.  Tracy Claeys takes over as the head coach at Minnesota after serving for 21 years on the staff of former coach Jerry Kill.  Claeys actually took over as Interim Coach last year after Kill had to resign due to his health.  Kill battled and beat Kidney Cancer, and has suffered from seizures for the past decade, at least.

When you look at Tracy Claeys, the first thing you think is, he’s a football coach.  A native of Clay Center, Kansas, Claeys took his Kansas State degree in Mathematics Education and started coaching in 1994 as the co-Defensive Coordinator at Sante Fe Trial High School. One year later, he joined Kill at Division II Saginaw Valley State, then jumped with Kill to Division II Emporia State in Kansas as Defensive Coordinator and then followed Kill as Defensive Coordinator to Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and Minnesota.  Consider that in his first year with Kill at Southern Illinois, the team went 1 – 10.  In 2007, they made the FCS Semi-Finals.

Claeys is living proof that you don’t have to play something to coach it.  He never played college football.  He has his work cut out for him to stay in the job however.  First of all, he was hired by an interim athletic director so he’ll be working for someone who didn’t hire him.  He was only given a three year contract which appears to be Minnesota saying we are going to give a chance, but we aren’t going to take a big risk.   He’s already won a bowl game snapping Minnesota’s 7 game bowl losing streak and has a roster full of returning talent.  A Bowl game isn’t out of the question for Minnesota, and a Big Ten Title isn’t out of the question at Northwestern.


Big Ten East – (1) Ohio State – they have a returning starting quarterback.  However while they can win the Big Ten, they may not be a playoff team as a Week 3 game at Norman, Oklahoma looms large; (2) Michigan – a trendy pick to make the playoff.  Look they are good and they are going to be good for a long time, but I don’t believe they can beat Ohio State just yet and particularly not in Columbus this season; (3) Michigan State – you don’t lose your starting quarterback and not take a step back, but I won’t be surprised if the Spartans find a way again; (4) Indiana – Kevin Wilson stays on the job as Indiana goes bowling again; (5) Penn State – James Franklin, in my opinion, is what happens when you go for the hottest girl at the dance.  He was a major success at Vanderbilt, but was so at a time when Tennessee was in the basement, and Georgia and Florida were struggling a bit by their standards.  It’s a different story in the Big Ten and I’m not so sure he’ll still be happy in Happy Valley in a couple of seasons; (6) Maryland – new coach, great staff, not much talent, enough said; (7) Rutgers – New coach, great staff, not much talent, and a mess left by the former coach; enough said.

Big Ten West – (1) Northwestern – I know, I know the last time they were on the field they were just awful in the Outback Bowl against Tennessee, but they return a quarterback who started 13 games, 7 starters are back on offense, and 7 on defense.  Among the returning offensive starters is Running back Justin Jackson, the leading rusher in the Big Ten a year ago who has 2,605 career yards.  Just for good measure, they also return their Place Kicker, Kick Returner, Long-Snapper and Punter.  Good enough for me to send them to Indianapolis to play for the Big Ten Title: (2) Nebraska – they love football at Nebraska and it’s time to start loving it again.  I believe that Mike Riley will do Nebraska right and will do it without making an ass of himself 99% of the time like Bo Pelini; (3) Iowa – Last year’s division champion heads back down the standings for a few years, but if it follows the Iowa trend, they’ll be back; (4) Wisconsin – Whatever.  That’s all I have to say about that; (5) Minnesota – The schedule sets up for 6-6, but that’s good enough for a bowl, but they cannot lose their opener to Oregon State and really need to start 3-0; (6) Illinois – Lovie Smith needs time.  This isn’t it; and (7) Purdue – Just not good.  That’s all you can say.

Ohio State over Northwestern to win the Big Ten Title, but that one loss to Oklahoma in the regular sesaon keeps Ohio State out of the playoff.  They’ll have to settle for the consolation prize…the Rose Bowl.  Not bad.


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